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What Does it Really Mean When People Lift Up Their Hands at Church?

03/18/2015 03:53 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2015

The band's playing. Everyone's singing. Some people even have their hands lifted up in the air.

If you've ever been to church, you probably know what I'm talking about.

When I was younger, I thought the people waving their hands all over the place were kind of weird. It just seemed awkward and unnecessary. As I got a little older, I thought I'd figured out the reasoning behind the action -- to demonstrate joy and praise to God through worship. It was a way to be connected to Him by simply reaching out.

I wasn't wrong about that last part. Worship is certainly a way to feel God's presence, and it can be powerful for people in different ways. Some people (like me) prefer worshipping through our instruments instead of singing. Others are content to simply stand and enjoy the knowledge that God is right there in the room with us as the church unites as one voice and one body. And some like to reach their hands out to the ceiling, like they're trying to blend the physical and spiritual sensations.

But lifting your hands doesn't always imply joy or praise. Biblically, the gesture is actually a sign of surrender.

In Exodus 17, when the Amalekites try to attack the Israelites, Moses must find a way to defend the people. He holds up the staff of God at the top of a hill, hands raised--in surrender.

Moses knows they cannot defend themselves against the Amalekites without God. He knows the power of the Lord is the only way to save the Israelites, so he holds up his hands as if to proclaim his own unworthiness, as if to say, "We can't do this on our own. We need You."

The next verse confirms that idea: "As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning."

With God on their side, the Israelites have the victory. But when Moses stops surrendering to God, the enemy swoops in, ready to attack.

Surrendering is what makes them powerful.

This idea is found all throughout the Bible. Another powerful example is in 2 Corinthians, when Paul talks about his "thorn in the flesh," or weakness. He seems grateful the thorn is there, saying he can now "boast" of his weakness because he is made strong through it. When he is weak, he must call on God, who then empowers him to overcome the obstacle.

Paul and the Israelites got the victory. But first they had to acknowledge their own weakness.

When we admit we can't do anything without God, we actually become stronger through that confession because we invite God to strengthen and guide us. And once you have Him on your side, you can't be defeated.

When Moses lowered his hands, the enemy won. That physical sign of keeping his hands in the air no matter how hard it was for him revealed his devotion to God and that he knew he needed God's help. So in a way, it is still a sign of praise -- but more in terms of realizing our own unworthiness.

When people raise their hands during worship at church, whether they know it or not, they are admitting that they are weak and without any power aside from the power they receive through the Holy Spirit. They're praising God by physically and publicly demonstrating to Him that they need Him.

When I think about this, I remember how when I was a little kid I used to think people raising their hands looked awkward or even kind of weird. But the people worshipping don't care how they look. They're surrendering to God--and becoming empowered through it.